In the early decades of the 20th century,  the former Sarasota Times building brought news of the world, but in the 21st, it brings food of the world. Now, the Mediterranean Revival structure, decadently and lovingly remodeled to look something like a chic monastery, hosts Sarasota’s newest fine dining and spirits establishment, Sage. And inside the dark, romantic space, Chef Chris Covelli—whose career has taken him from the bazaars of Marrakesh to truffle-hunting in the Italian Alps—crafts menu items that betray the wisdom of his world travels. “We really want people to get something from each dish, whether it’s the spice or the type of salt, that takes them to another place,” says Covelli, and when diners sample the myriad foreign fare, they may find their spirits traversing a new silk road from the comfort of their stylish seats.

THE THAI BOUILLABAISSE SWAPS BRINY ROCKFISH FOR SUCCULENT LOBSTER TAIL, COD, TIGER SHRIMP AND SCALLOPS. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

The first stop on the globe trot, a Thai Bouillabaisse, transports diners to two seemingly disparate cuisines; Thai and French. Essentially, the dish is a Southeast Asian riff on the traditional bouillabaisse (fish stews) made by Marseille fishermen. Where the French version includes mostly bony rockfish in a briny broth with mixed vegetables, the evolved version at Sage features generous portions of par-poached lobster tail, cod, tiger shrimp and scallops. The cod sears in light oil before Covelli blasts the pan with white wine, inducing a flash fire that locks in the cod’s tender flakiness without overcooking the inside. Then, the shrimp and scallops convene with the cod to exchange stories over medium heat. In a separate pan, Covelli sautés lemongrass, ginger and onion before he adds coconut milk and red curry paste to form the rich, orange broth one typically finds in Thai restaurants. A pinch of mirin, honey and basil join the potion last before some of the prized broth gets tossed with the assorted seafood. The plating looks like an idol for an ocean deity, with a meticulous arrangement that includes a central tower of cod, lobster tail and shrimp placed upright at the pinnacle while the scallops ring the tower to mark the cardinal directions. With so many various textures and levels of brininess, it’d be easy to imagine the dish as a muddled meaty mess, but the silkiness of the red coconut curry blends each cut of seafood in perfect harmony and adds just a hint of heat. 

From Thailand, one travels West across the Bay of Bengal to India, where food as colorful as it is vibrant has enchanted travelers for centuries. Sage’s Tandoori Lamb—sourced from Colorado, the unofficial lamb capital of the US—evokes the savory complexity of the cuisine. The 1/2 rack marinates in a yogurt and spice blend for 24 hours to tenderize the fibers and infuse the exterior with a rich red hue. Once it’s ready to present to the grill, Covelli induces the Maillard reaction on the rack with an aesthetically pleasing cross-hatch before popping it in a convection oven on low heat to finish the delicate, tender cut. As the lamb transforms, a neat stack of shingled potato slices sizzle in a pan for an elevated expression of an ancient formula: meat + starch. When the rack has donned a perfectly browned crust, Covelli slices it into four individual chops and arranges them into a miniature temple, rib bones gazing skyward with the potatoes inside. The meat falls from the bone without much coaxing and the bold outer crust never overpowers the fundamental flavor of grass-fed lamb that shows a hint of pink in its interior. 

THE SALMON MARRAKESH HIGHLIGHTS MOROCCAN SPICE AND THE POWER OF PLATING. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Continuing Westward, deeper still into the trance of exotic cuisine, diners arrive in Morocco by way of Sage’s Salmon Marrakesh, arguably the most complex and ambitious dish on the menu. The dish starts with a thick cut of salmon seared in olive oil before it, like the lamb, finishes in the convection oven. As it does, onions and tomatoes are lightly sautéed in noisette butter before Covelli adds his secret blend of ras el hanout, a traditional Moroccan spice mix that includes cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, coriander, peppercorn and lavender, among other undisclosed treasures. “I always try to bring something back [from my travels],” he says, “like the 20 lbs. of spices I brought from Morocco.” Just as the mystical aromatics bloom and release their effulgent bounty, Israeli couscous is introduced to absorb some of the excess mojo. In a separate pan, asparagus spears and wild carrots gently char while seasoned spinach wilts lightly over medium-low heat. “You have to respect the process, no matter what,” says Covelli as he juggles as many as three separate pans at once. The final presentation looks a bit like a pagan earthwork, with the couscous and spinach forming an altar for the salmon, sautéed carrots and asparagus spears laid across the top like tributes and a garnish of beet sprouts and agave curry butter arranged artfully around the rim of the plate, while the aromatics glide into the nose like the serpentine smoke of incense, evoking scenes of a crowded bazaar.